My Sixty Years With An 'Iron Horse'

Frank Canfield
November/December 1998
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Exhibit and exhibitor at Souteast Old Threshers Reunion, Denton, NC, July 4, 1998.
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I did not realize it at the time, but I started collecting Johnson 'Iron Horse' engines shortly after discharge from the Army Air Force in 1946. While visiting an old friend's 'Petroleum Distributor' business, I saw a new unemployed 'Iron Horse' engine with which I had been familiar since before World War II. The engine had fascinated me as a nosy sixteen-year-old. This iron horse fitted with a fluid coupling pulley, powered the pump on an oil delivery truck. The rope-started engine was belted to a positive displacement pump piped through a sales ticket printing meter and delivery hose for servicing farm fuel tanks. The fluid coupling pulley allowed the engine to continue running when, fuel, locked in the pump, stopped flowing. In 1938, before automatic transmissions, this pulley was a puzzler. It was the first I, or anyone I knew, had seen such a wonder.

My immediate reaction was that this set-up would make a wonderful child's car power unit. The previous year when I was fifteen, I had tried to make a car by using an iron horse taken off a washing machine which was converted to electric power. The attempt was a failure, because I was unable to make a workable clutch and drive system. An engine such as this would have been the solution to my problem, but it was a year in the future. It would also have been beyond my means.

Now, in September 1946, I was again seeing this remarkable little engine, unemployed, with poor prospects for the future. Needless to say, as fascinated as ever, I bought it, thinking if ever I should have a child, I might still build that dream toy car. A storage box was built and 'iron horse' was stabled until 1956, when the well rested little engine found happy work powering a car built for my six-year-old son. Indeed it was a fine car engine, the fluid coupling provided the advantage of not limiting engine revolutions as centrifugal clutches do. Consequently, my son's car would out-perform go carts with more powerful engines. After about three years, my son outgrew this car and the trusty 'iron horse' was again stabled in its box to await a future grandchild.

Grandchildren have come along, but before they were old enough for a car, Grandpa had made the sixty-year-old iron horse the 'star' of his antique exhibit It is at work again mounted on a seventy-five-year-old Monarch shallow well pump as a dynamic display. The engine runs steadily at governed speed while the pump runs when the cut-off valve is open or stops when the valve is closed, just like it did long ago on the 1938 Ford oil delivery truck. That fluid coupling pulley allows this to happen. Spectators are fascinated today just as this old man still is.

My current inventory consists of two Johnson Utili motors, (2-cycle, hit and miss), and twenty-six iron horse (4-cy-cle, throttle governed) engines in show condition, as well as about fifteen more iron horses which are work in progess, needing parts, labor and T.L.C. Many of these have been shown at twenty or more shows each year since 1990.


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